TCS Daily


Ideas Have Consequences, Don't They?

By Uriah Kriegel - July 7, 2005 12:00 AM

In a New Republic article that is making the rounds among left-wing intellectuals ("The Case Against New Ideas"), Jonathan Chait argues against the view that Republicans are in power in large part because they are winning a war of ideas. Chait notes -- correctly, I believe -- that this analysis has taken roots on both sides of the political divide over the past couple of years.

Chait's thesis is twofold. First, in reality the left has plenty of good ideas -- arguably, more than the right -- so the analysis cannot possibly be correct. Second, the correct order of explanation is opposite: Republicans dominate the idea scene because they are in power, not the other way round.

As evidence for the first claim, Chait cites an abundance of concrete proposals churned out by liberal think tanks.

        "Troll websites of the Center for American Progress, the Brookings Institution, or 
        the Century Foundation, and you will find them teeming with six- and twelve-point 
        plans for any problem you can imagine: securing loose nuclear weapons, 
        reforming public education, promoting international trade, bolstering the 
        military, and so on."

The problem with these piecemeal proposals is that that's what they are -- piecemeal. It is most certainly true that parties don't come to power on the wings of fragmentary concrete policy proposals. What needs -- and what can -- be communicated to the American public is a coherent, cohesive, comprehensive governing philosophy. Such a philosophy amounts to more than just a concatenation of problem-solving maneuvers. It is a big-picture outlook on the nature of civic society that can operate as a fountain for solutions to many potential problems. It is this that the left is seen to have lacked since the days of Bill Clinton's third-way, New Democrat ideological movement.

Chait addresses this consideration late in his article, but dismisses it hurriedly.

        "Some of those who excoriate Democrats and liberals for lacking ideas don't 
        mean, when they say 'ideas,' specific plans of action. They mean something 
        more abstract -- a philosophical schema for governing, which often amounts 
        to a slogan to describe one's ideology. It is certainly true that conservatives 
        enjoy a long-standing edge here."

Here Chait puts his finger on the source of the left's problem. But perhaps because there is no substantive response available to him, he resorts to an utterly implausible identification of philosophy with sloganry.

Further testament that there is no substantive and plausible response to make on the left's behalf is found in the rest of Chait's discussion in this part of the article. In an otherwise carefully argued piece, this discussion consists effectively of a sequence of belled-and-whistled ad hominems.

"While Karl Rove recently asserted, 'We believe in curbing the size of government; they believe in expanding the size of government,' government has in fact grown significantly under Bush after shrinking under his Democratic predecessor," he observes. "In this case, the conservative superiority in 'ideas' simply reflects a greater capacity for hypocrisy." I, too, am dismayed by the gap between rhetoric and practice in small-government talk coming from the Bush team, but this is beside the point. The point is that the right has, whereas the left does not have, a coherent governing philosophy. This is so whether or not the right's philosophy is hypocritical. As long as the left has no philosophy, hypocritical or not, the charge stands.

Chait's case for his second claim is that the American public does not seem to be so in tune with the world of ideas as we would all like to think. Both sides in the war of ideas are wedded to an inflated conception of the relationship between ideas and power, or rather between having ideas and getting to power. "Alas, this sort of thinking assumes a wildly optimistic level of discernment by voters... 'The voting behavior literature, which is massive, shows that people are not particularly idea-driven,' explains Berkeley political scientist Nelson Polsby."

Again, we should keep in mind the distinction between knowing the details of ideas and even general policy, on the one hand, and having a sense of the overall philosophy on the other. It is indeed likely that large segments of the American electorate are unaware of the ins and outs of particular policy debates. But it does not follow, and is rather implausible, that they do not have an accurate conception, however vague and imprecise, of the overall message and outlook. If they didn't, elections would literally be coin-tosses, hardly worthy of the financial and energy investment among all considered.

Indeed, Chait's reasoning in fact provides evidence for the opposite contention. Suppose the public is not attuned to specific policy issues, but is in touch only with the big picture. This would make the party lacking in overall message singularly disadvantaged. For the electorate's sense would then be that one party has something to say whereas the other party is just blabbering. Which is precisely how the public seems to have felt in the run-up to the 2000 and 2004 elections.

To my mind, there are two factors that have contributed crucially to the left's idea deficit in recent history, and both are only served further by Chait's argument.

The first is the utter contempt of the left's intellectual organs for the intellectual life of the right. In fact, they are rarely aware that there is an intellectual life on the right. They work with a caricature of the right as a band of "stupid (rich) white men," to borrow a phrase. This caricature makes it impossible for the left to see its opponent for what it is. Thus if "know your enemy" is among the first rules of politics, the left starts out at a serious disadvantage.

(This is not to say that there are no superficial stereotypes on the right, but they tend to portray their objects as evil rather than dumb. In some quarters of the right, the left is sometimes caricatured as a coalition of sinners: atheists, homosexuals, criminals, lazies, etc. But the implicit accusation here is of morality, not intelligence.)

The second factor in the left's challenge is its condescending attitude toward the electorate. It is all too common among the Democrats' hard-core base to see Americans as just too stupid to be worth bothering with. The reason the Democrats are out of power, the story goes, is that the electorate is just too retrograde and ignorant. This puts the Dems at a disadvantage in a rather obvious way: after four years of scorning the populace, they return to it expecting to be rewarded.

Chait's argument is in line with this tradition. It caters to the left's intellectual elites, in the worlds of academia and punditry, who want to hear precisely that the reason their ideas don't prevail is that ideas don't matter. The alternative explanation, after all, would have to be that their ideas do not prevail because they are inferior, and this they cannot accept. The truth is that accepting this would be the beginning of wisdom, and perhaps recovery, for the left.

The author teaches philosophy at the University of Arizona and is a frequent TCS contributing writer.

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